After Sunday’s victory over the league-leading Golden State Warriors, Lakers fans were understandably in a tizzy. The sub-.200 Lakers had just knocked off the over-.900 Warriors, marking the largest upset by win percentage in league history (though if you ask Neil Payne, it’s only the 23rd-biggest, whatever). What was particularly promising was how the young core stepped up on both ends of the court, highlighted by rookie D’Angelo Russell’s 4 steals (to go with 21 points and 5 assists).
But most fans (and myself) expected the Lakers to go back to tank mode come Tuesday with the Orlando Magic coming to town and the need to secure a top-3 pick still very real. The players had other plans, however.
Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle—the Lakers “Big 3” of young players—put up 27, 24, and 23 points, respectively, marking the first time 3 players aged 23 or younger on the same team scored 23 or more since James Harden was in OKC. That’s kind of a big deal. Equally impressive is that each of them did so on better than 50% shooting from the field. For a team that still has a ways to go on defense, that type of efficiency is going to be important on the offensive end.
So What Changed?
The most dramatic change has been on the offensive end, where coach Byron Scott has installed a motion offense (this post at lakersground.net explains it far better than could). The ball is moving much better, and players look much more locked in to what they ought to be doing on offense. There even seems to be fewer instances of Randle playing iso ball from the elbow and bullying his way to an awkward shot (though that’s not to say that doesn’t happen anymore).
Certainly the presence of D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup has been a boost for the team, and Russell has played very well of late. Clarkson meanwhile has proven to be at least serviceable on defense, which marks a significant improvement from otherwise being near the bottom of the league in that department. And of course, Randle has been nothing but a double-double machine, though there certainly remain areas—like consistency with his off hand—that he’ll have to work on in the offseason.
I, like every Lakers fan, hope we get to keep our pick in this year’s draft, and while we’re making wishes, I hope that pick ends up being #1 overall. But regardless of whether LA is able to add a top draft pick—and I’m not even going to entertain the idea of Kevin Durant or any other major Free Agent coming—the future is promising for the young core. By being competitive these last several games, they should be able to build chemistry and confidence that will carry over to next season, where playoff contention could be a reasonable goal.